Pitirim Sorokin

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0. David Wilkinson:

"In his life, Sorokin was variously a starving peasant orphan, an itinerant icon gilder, a self-taught bookworm, a political activist, a six-time political prisoner, an empirical penologist, a quantitative sociologist, a Socialist Revolutionary, a starving intellectual worker, an involuntary passenger on the Ship of Expelled Russian Thinkers, a founding comparative civilizationist, a conservative Christian anarchist, a Tolstoyan believer that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” and an elected write-in candidate for President of the American Sociological Association."


1. Brittanica on Pitrim A Sorokin:

“In the history of sociological theory, he is important for distinguishing two kinds of sociocultural systems: “sensate” (empirical, dependent on and encouraging natural sciences) and “ideational” (mystical, anti-intellectual, dependent on authority and faith).”


More at: Sensate, Idealistic and Ideational Cultural-Historical Typology of Pitirim Sorokin

2. Pavel Krotov:

"Pitirim A. Sorokin was born in 1889 in Komi (province in Northern Russia) into a peasant family. During his early childhood he traveled with his father and two brothers earning their living by remodeling and painting rural churches. His strong interest in education, combined with a natural talent and work ethic, soon transformed him into a leading Russian social scientist and famous politician who was at the center of the Russian Revolution in 1917. In 1923, after his banishment by the Bolsheviks, Pitirim Sorokin started a new life in the United States. In less than 10 years the Russian émigré became a world-renowned sociologist and the founder of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Over 30 major books were published over a period of 50 years of active intellectual life. His ideas attracted the attention of Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy, political activists and yoga followers, military and peace proponents. At the time of his death in 1968 Pitirim Sorokin was one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century."


3. Pitirim Sorokin, excerpt from the autobiography:

"Eventfulness has possibly been the most significant feature of my life-adventure. In a span of seventy-three years I have passed through several cultural atmospheres: pastoral-hunter's culture of the Komi; first the agricultural, then the urban culture of Russia and Europe; and, finally, the megalopolitan, technological culture of the United States. Starting my life as a son of a poor itinerant artisan and peasant mother, I have subsequently been a farmhand, itinerant artisan, factory worker, clerk, teacher, conductor of a choir, revolutionary, political prisoner, journalist, student, editor of a metropolitan paper, member of Kerensky's cabinet, an exile, pro­fessor at Russian, Czech, and American universities, and a scholar of an international reputation... "


Pagan Childhood, Orthodox Youth

Barry V.Johnston:

"Sorokin began life among the Komi people in northern Russia in 1889. The Komi are at least bilingual, frequently speaking Komi, Russian, and Finnish. Most work as farmers and hunters. Although a rural society, they are the third most literate group in Russia and are wellknown for their contributions to the arts, sciences, and humanities. Additionally they are independent, hardworking, and deeply religious people. Many of these traits would shape Sorokin's character.

Sorokin learned independence and responsibility early in life. His mother died when he was three, and at eleven he and his older brother separated from their father. Vassily and Pitirim were itinerant artisans working in churches and regularly moving from one village to another. It is easy to view Sorokin's early life as impoverished, difficult, and lonely. However, it was much more than that. The Komi territories were vast and beautiful, and the people lived at one with nature. From his shaman uncle Sorokin learned about the forest, animals, and plains. Much of his childhood was spent under the stars as he moved about in search of work. Komi folklore was rich with spirits that controlled the forest, winds, and night. His naturalistic knowledge of the woods and its creatures was infused by this transcendent pagan mythology and intensely felt by the young brothers as they huddled around fires to keep off the cold and fears that came with the night. Such memories stayed with Sorokin and shaped his early beliefs about the natural and supernatural.

The Orthodox religion became an important element in Sorokin's character. All his early life was spent around priests and churches. His hands had formed rizas and icons, and there were daily dialogues with Orthodox clergy. Church doctrine intertwined with pagan mythology to form Pitirim's aesthetic sense and spirituality. Orthodox ceremonies stimulated his love of music and provided profound insights into the emotional and social power of ritual. As an acolyte and later a religious teacher, his values were strongly influenced by the message and rites of the Church. His faith so deeply moved him that he often retreated to the forest for periods of fasting and prayer, living as an early Christian ascetic. These experiences brought together the spirits of nature, and those of the deity and the saints, to forge a sensitivity of life that transcended the senses. For this young man, knowing was more than an empirical process; it was one of superconsciousness. Man's reality was not confined to the material. There were the deeper, more mysterious truths of spiritual life.

Sorokin probed for the ties between the mystical and material that made life a unity. While secular studies trained his mind, the drama of the Mass, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Redemption disciplined his Sorokin's Life and Work 5 spirit. These mysteries, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Christian Beatitudes, would guide his life. Religion, education, and Komi traditions integrated and crystallized his philosophy deeper than he could then know. They were the forces that shaped his personality and would drive his scholarship toward Integralism."

(Source: Sorokin and Civilization, Chapter 1)


From the Sorokin Library:

"If we take Sorokin as a member of a species of Philosophers of History, or Social Change writers, the following observations might be of in­terest in understanding him, or if in not under­standing, placing him within a tangible milieu.

1. He is a man originating outside of the cul­tures about which he writes, and coming into them with some of the dispassion of the visiting scholar from afar. In a technical and a psychological sense Sorokin was not a mass or orthodox Russian by cul­ture. His constant movements have ever been into new cultures, from the fringes of the Arctic to Har­vard University in the U.S.A. In this respect he has always had the objectivity of an outsider, only mag­nified.

2. A second characteristic is Sorokin's early engagement in political agitation with a resultant broadening of experience and close physical contact with the tangible and intangible good and evil forces of a Machiavellian nature in the ordinary manage­ment process of society. It might be pointed out that most great social change writers, and these philoso­phers of history, had considerable "experiences" of this nature.

3. A third characteristic shared by most of these social change philosophers has been that of un­orthodox educations arising largely out of the situations in which they found themselves. They did not ordinarily receive formal educations in standard subjects in which they later made their names.

4. Finally a fourth characteristic in common with many great philosophers of history is that of imprison­ment, punishment, and death sentences for their activities and views, and the fortunate ability to recover and unwillingness to be crushed by this psychological passage out of life, and then return. In these cases, their great work of a creative nature might be said to have been made in their second lives or their "reincarnations". Most of these writers were in danger much of the time and escaped by narrow margins. They were always living on time which had been gained by accident."



Richard Simpson:

Sorokin's work in English fits nicely into three periods:

(1) an early period of miscellaneous writings,

(2) sociocultural dynamics and social criticism, and

(3) altruism.

His early period began when he came to this country and ended when he left Minnesota for Harvard. The broad range of his interests during these years can be illustrated by listing his books: Leaves from a Russian Diary, The Sociology of Revolution, Social Mobility, Contemporary Sociological Theories, Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology, and the Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology. Sorokin began this period a disillusioned former liberal but an adherent of some of the approaches common in the social science of the time. Strong traces of behaviorism and Paretanism appear in his earlier writings of this period, especially in The Sociology of Revolution. A paramount idea is that human actions are irrationally determined. In Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology, written toward the end of this period in 1929, the behavioristic emphasis has become less noticeable and the conservative social values which are to be strongly featured in Sorokin's later works begin to appear.

After going to Harvard in 1930, Sorokin began his monumental study of world civilization which led to the work for which he is best known, Social and Cultural Dynamics. This work set the tone for the condemnation of our Sensate culture which is prominent in all of Sorokin's writings since 1937. Sorokin's extensive study convinced him that our civilization is overly materialistic, disorganized, and in imminent danger of collapse. He spent the next dozen years in warning the public of the danger and seeking a way out.

By the late 1940's he began to see what he felt was a solution. What is needed urgently, he decided, is an understanding of the ways in which altruistic behavior can be fostered. Only by making men more altruistic can we attack the Sensate major premise on which our society is foundering. In 1946 Sorokin established the research center in altruism, and since 1950 his books have been the product of this center's program. His interest in altruism has developed logically from his study of social and cultural dynamics. He is attacking the roots of the problems he first raised in the 1930's."



Richard Simpson:

"The enormous amount of historical and statistical material gathered together in Social and Cultural Dynamics has probably been Sorokin's greatest contribution to date. He and his assistants did a more complete and systematic job of classifying cultural items and tracing their fluctuations than anyone before or since has attempted. Staggering numbers of artistic and literary works, legal and ethical codes, and forms of social relationships are classified, and their changing proportions of Sensatism and Ideationalism are graphed. Sorokin has shown quantitatively, where others have only argued qualitatively, to what extent fluctuations in thought patterns parallel fluctuations in other departments of life. His numerical time charts should enable historians in the future to delineate the boundaries of such periods as the Middle Ages and the Hellenistic Age with a precision never before possible.


The threefold classification of Sensate, Idealistic, and Ideational supersystems is open to the same objections that are raised against all such systems.

Sorokin at times seems to be forcing his data to make them fit. This is especially true when he tries to distinguish between Idealistic periods and Mixed or eclectic ones. The only distinction appears to be based on an evaluation of the Idealistic type as a sublime, harmonious blend and of the Mixed type as an unintegrated hash. The criteria for this distinction are nowhere made exact or operational. Sorokin nevertheless does not seem to torture his data to make them fit his pattern to nearly the same extent as Toynbee, Spengler, and other global systematizers.

A number of critics have intimated that in reading the Dynamics the words "good" and "bad" might profitably be substituted for Ideational and Sensate. They are not quite correct in this. Sorokin prefers the Idealistic mentality to either of the two polar types, since he finds in it a balance of their best elements and an absence of their excesses and blind spots. In the Idealistic culture mentality we have a healthy cultivation of the whole man; neither his animal needs nor his capabilities for spiritual striving are neglected.

While Sorokin favors the Idealistic mentality above all, he seems to prefer the Ideational to the Sensate. Repeatedly he condemns the contemporary Sensate culture in no uncertain terms. We are sinking deeper into the "muck of the sociocultural sewers.""5 Our literature and art are "physio-dirty," dealing with "rogues, gamins, ragamuffins, hypocrites, mistresses, profligates ... prostitutes; the victims of gigantic passions, unbalanced and abnormal." We try to make our prisons better than our first-class hotels, thus favoring criminals over non-criminals. Our literature is "standardized pabulum."18 We are afflicted with insecurity, unhappiness, empiricism, music critics, and baseball players." While Ideational culture is not perfect, those who condemn it are "intellectual lilliputians"20 writing "tittle-tattle."" Idealistic culture is harmonious; it requires an intellect far above average ; it is sublime; it is marvelous.

Throughout the Dynamics and Sorokin's more recent books one sees condemnations of our present Sensate culture like those presented above. These nonscientific elements are not segregated from the body of the work and labeled as editorials rather than news; on the contrary, the whole of the Dynamics is interlarded with asides on the horror of the twentieth century. Many critics have found these infusions of sentiment objectionable in a writer who states that "the task of an investigator is to indicate the essential characteristics of each culture, leaving the evaluations to the sense or nonsense of others." Assuming that Sorokin is an investigator, he has gone beyond his allotted task."


Systematization of Social Change

By the Sorokin Library:

"Sorokin tried to systematize the whole problem of social change. This is important. In J. T. Fraser's (ed.) Theories of Time 26 essays are given but none about time and its meaning in sociology. One reason for this lack is because there are many times (many forms of change) in sociology and one essay could hardly touch the problem. Sociology has more permutations and combinations than other fields and both and all are often operating at the same time. However, Sorokin gives a resume of the field.

The prime principles of sociocultural change are, for him, immanent dynamism and limits. He surveys at length the history of preceding theories using these principles in one form or another.

His own sophisti­cated version he represented in his general statements

(a) that "immanency of change is the unexceptional, ever-present, permanent, universal and necessary rea­son ('cause') of their (sociocultural systems) change"; and

(b) that "an enormous number of sociocultural systems and processes have a limited range of pos­sibilities in their variation, in the creation of new fundamental forms" {Dynamics, Vol. IV, p. 667 and p. 710).

In other words the Nature of Society and all its parts is to change. However since there are limits on each system, change eventually has to re­verse its direction. The complexity and profundity of his analysis, however, can be only viewed dimly in such summary statements, Sorokin's views are counterpoised, in his exposition of them, to all "externalistic" viewpoints, to all ideas of monocausal, unilinear, and hodge-podge "multi-causal" theories of social and cultural change.

In the light of his prime "Why's of sociocultural change," important corollaries are developed and many lesser principles and procedures for the study of social and cultural dynamics are elaborated and applied. Developing the two prime principles system­atically, and applying them to the problems of "re­currence, rhythm, linearism, and eternal novelty," Sorokin comes to the conclusion that the most general pattern of sociocultural change is one of incessantly varying recurrent processes. Since a society tends to integrate itself into a system, the systems also tend to recur at least in a considerable degree.

Perhaps we may best point this out by summarizing his own findings of his four-volume study of Social and Cultural Dynamics (see also the one-volume edition chs. 38, 39, 40):

  • "Identically recurrent sociocultural processes are impossible."
  • "Eternally linear sociocultural processes are also impossible."

"But a linear trend limited in time (whose duration is different for different systems and processes) is to be expected and is factually found in almost all sociocultural processes. In some it lasts only a few moments or hours or days or months; in others many decades and even centuries, but in all, it is limited in time and is shorter than the time of the whole existence of the system."

"The sociocultural processes with an unlimited possi­bility of variation of their essential traits are also impossible—factually and logically." Hence, "history is ever old and repeats itself."

"As to the possibilities of variation of the accidental properties of the system, the range of the possibilities here is wide, in some cases, at least, theoretically, almost unbounded. Hence, an incessant change of the system in these traits as long as the system exists. Likewise, almost unlimited are the possibilities of variation of the ever-new systems through the method of substitution or replacement of the exhausted systems by new ones. Hence, history is ever new, unrevealed and inexhaustible in its creativeness." "Since practically all the sociocultural systems have limited possibilities of variation of their essential forms, it follows that all the systems that continue to exist after all their possible forms are exhausted, are bound to have recurrent rhythms. Hence, the inevi­tability of recurrence in the life process of such systems."

"Other conditions being equal, the more limited the possibilities of variation of main forms, the more frequent, conspicuous, and grasping are the rhythms in the process of the system, and the simpler the rhythms from the standpoint of their phases. And vice versa, if in some of the processes we cannot grasp any recurrent rhythm, the reason is either that the process has comparatively large possibilities of vari­ation that empirically prevent us from noticing the infrequent rhythm; or that it endures a shorter life span and dies earlier, before it has had a chance to run through all its forms (just as some organisms die at the prenatal stage or in childhood, before they have a chance to run through all the main phases of human life from birth to senility. Or the inability to grasp any recurrent rhythm may be due to a co­existence and mutual "interference" of several con­temporaneous and different rhythms in the same system that change them into an unrhythmical "noise" for the listener or observer; or to the excessively long duration between the recurrences, which makes the rhythm also unobservable; or to the exceedingly complex and many-phased nature of the rhythm."

"Thus history ever repeats itself and never repeats itself; both seemingly contradictory statements are true and are not contradictory at all, when properly understood." "This means that the strictly cyclical (identically recurrent) conception of the sociocultural process; the linear, in the sense of unlimitedly linear; the unicist, in the sense of the nonexistence of any recurrent rhythms in the sociocultural processes, they being "brand-new" and unique in the totality of their traits and properties at any moment; the static conception that there is no change, and that the sociocultural world ever remains strictly identical with itself—all these conceptions are fallacious. The valid conception is that of an "incessant variation" of the main re­current themes, which contains in itself, as a part, all these conceptions, and as such is much richer than any of them." (Dynamics, Vol. IV, pp. 731-2).

In these partial quotations of Sorokin's own summary, one sees both his stress on social change in contrast to most of his colleagues in the socio­logical fraternity, and sees also that he makes clear that "recurrence" is a complicated problem. History does not repeat itself; but much of any present may be understood more thoroughly if we look at the repetitive elements in the culture.

(from Carle C. Zimmerman, Sorokin, the world’s greatest sociologist (University of Saskatchewan, Sorokin lectures, no. 1; Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 1968), p.v-vi.)



URL = https://archive.org/details/socialculturaldy0001soro

  1. -- v. 1. Fluctuation of forms of art.
  2. --v. 2. Fluctuation of systems of truth, ethics, and law.
  3. --v. 3. FLuctuation of social relationships, war, and revolution.--
  4. v. 4. Basic problems, principles, and methods

See also: Social and Cultural Dynamics: Revised and abridged in one volume by the author. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1957.

  • Social philosophies of an age of crisis. by Sorokin, Pitirim Aleksandrovich. A. & C. Black, 1952

URL = https://archive.org/details/socialphilosophi0000unse

URL = https://archive.org/details/crisisofourageso00soro_0

"Represents in a modified form my public lectures on The twilight of sensate culture given at the Lowell institute in February, 1941. It is based upon four volumes of my Social and cultural dynamics."-

  • The reconstruction of humanity

URL = https://archive.org/details/reconstructionof00soro

  • Man and Society in Calamity.

"The book Man and Society in Calamity reflects Sorokin’s life experience (the sections on famine are particularly vivid), his empirical-sociological praxis, and his Tolstoyan focus on altruistic love as the primary counterstrategy against all calamity. In Man and Society in Calamity, Sorokin gave an extremely brief overview of the artistic, behavioral, cultural, economic, ethical, ideological, political, psychological, religious, scientific, sociological, and technological consequences of calamities; and he proposed, again, an extremely brief view of their causes, remedies, and future."

- David Wilkson [1]

More information

About Sorokin

  • intellectual biography: Johnston, Barry V. 1995. Pitirim A. Sorokin: An Intellectual Biography. Lawrence Kansas: University Press of Kansas.


  • Rough Dialectics: Sorokin’s Philosophy of Value. By Palmer Talbutt Jr (ed.). Rodopi (1998)

URL = https://philpapers.org/rec/TALRDS-3

"This is an exploration in depth of the social theory of the Russian-born thinker Pitirim A. Sorokin, who played a large role in American thought. Sorokin's contributions to theories of culture, social change, modernity, and dialectics are evaluated in this wide-ranging study. The book emphasizes the place of values in the comparative study of civilizations. This volume includes a translation by Lawrence T. Nichols of Sorokin's essay in Russian on Tolstoy as philosopher, as well as a chapter by Nichols on Tolstoy and Sorokin. In this book, Palmer Talbutt, Jr. examines his former teacher, Sorokin, within intellectual, educational, and cultural contexts. The work will be of especial interest to scholars in social philosophy, the philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of culture, and comparative cultural studies."

* Article: PITIRIM A. SOROKIN AND SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. By Barry V. Johnston. Michigan Sociological Review. Vol. 12 (Fall 1998), pp. 1-23

URL = https://www.jstor.org/stable/40969020

"Pitrim A. Sorokin's career culminated in a body of work that linked his study of sociocultural organization and change to the crisis of modernity and a quest for peace. Capping his analysis was the Amitological Paradigm he developed and tested at the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism. This research yielded a field tested algorithm for transforming social relationships and improving the human condition. Sorokin's works and those of the Center have been largely overlooked in the history and study of altruism and prosocial behavior. The following paper invites a critical re-engagement with these ideas and the man who developed them."

* Article: Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Contribution to the Theory and Practice of Altruism. Emiliana Mangone. European Journal of Social Sciences, 58-1 | 2020, p. 149-175 doi

URL = https://journals.openedition.org/ress/6497?lang=en

"Absorbed in their routine activities, the social sciences often lose sight of one of their original goals: to reform societies. This is at least what Pitirim A. Sorokin thought: for him, sociology had no reason to exist except as a discipline committed to the service of humanity. This article takes a journey through the Sorokinian concept of altruistic creative love, from its genesis, caused in the late 1930s by the diagnosis of a crisis of our time, to its practical applications, which culminated, fifteen years later, in the proposal of a new science: amitology. A prophetic voice recently forgotten in Europe thus regained its place among the major expressions of altruistic thought of the twentieth century."